Ruth Rendell dies at 85; prolific English mystery writer

Ruth Rendell, a prolific English writer of mysteries and psychological thrillers, dies at 85

When the after-dinner speaker at a tennis club banquet clutched his chest and keeled over dead, one door slammed shut and another flew open for a young writer named Ruth Rendell.

Reporting for a local newspaper, Rendell wrote an account of the gala without actually having attended it, thereby missing the speaker's death and the most dramatic event of the day in the placid English town of Chigwell.

She resigned immediately — but, still in her early 20s, poured herself into fiction, ultimately penning about 70 mystery novels and psychological thrillers to become one of the most celebrated crime writers in the English-speaking world.

Rendell, creator of the gruff, literate, overweight Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, died Saturday in London, according to her publisher Penguin Random House. She was 85.

Rendell (pronounced REN-dell, not Ren-DELL) also wrote under the name Barbara Vine, often when she felt a need to explore the interior world of a psychopath in a way that her Wexford stories and her stand-alone novels would not allow.

No cause of death was disclosed, but Rendell had suffered a stroke in January.

She kept a vigorous schedule well into her 80s, writing several hours daily and exercising on an elliptical trainer and a Pilates machine in her home. Three times a week, she walked two miles to catch a subway bound for Parliament.

Formally known as Baronness Rendell of Babergh, she was appointed in 1997 to the House of Lords, where she advocated for low-income housing, aid to the homeless, medical help for children with heart problems, and more severe laws dealing with female genital mutilation.

But she was best known for her books, which she turned out at a rate of about one every nine months.

"If there were a craft guild for writers, I'd apprentice myself to Ruth Rendell," California mystery writer Sue Grafton, creator of the Kinsey Millhone series, once said of the author.

Rendell was often mentioned in the same breath as P.D. James, another giant of British mystery and a fellow member of the House of Lords.

She also was likened in stature to Agatha Christie but didn't think much of the comparison.

"I think some of her ideas approached genius — the one in "Murder on the Orient Express", for example — [but] I just don't think she wrote very well," she told the Guardian, a British newspaper, in 2002. "She was writing about an upper-class world she didn't know very well for people who didn't know it very well either."

Rendell didn't go in for drawing room revelations by a master detective, nor was she fascinated with the ins-and-outs of forensic procedure.

But she created memorable characters and often described them in unforgettably acerbic fashion, as in her 1977 novel "A Judgement in Stone":

" 'Norm and I always longed for kiddies,' she was in the habit of saying, 'but they never came. The Lord knew best, no doubt, and it's not for us to question His ways.' No doubt he did. One wonders what Joan Smith would have done with children if she had them. Eaten them perhaps."

Her Wexford novels take place in the fictional village of Kingsmarkham and often focus on social topics not usually associated with detectives in the English countryside: racism, pedophilia, radical environmentalism, gay rights. Her first published novel — "From Doon to Death", in 1964 — centered on a lesbian relationship.

Wexford "didn't inhabit rarefied social circles or drive a Bentley," British mystery writer Val McDermid wrote in a tribute to Rendell. "He was a decent bloke with a wife and grown-up daughters who struggled to make sense of the things we do to each other. He was blessed with intelligence and common sense, but he was as flawed as the rest of us and he felt like someone you might meet in your local pub."

A popular British TV series based on the Wexford stories starred George Baker as the chief inspector. Rendell's books were translated into at least 33 languages and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.

Born in London on Feb. 17, 1930, Ruth Grasemann Rendell was the only child of two teachers in a marriage she later described as an unhappy one.

"I was imbued from a very early age with a sense of doom," she told the London Sunday Times.

Vowing to never be a teacher, she embarked on her short-lived journalism career after high school. At 20, she married Don Rendell, one of her editors.

The two divorced in 1975 but remarried each other two years later. He died in 1999.

While raising their son Simon, who survives her, Rendell wrote six unpublished novels before her debut with "From Doon to Death".

Rendell was prickly in interviews when she felt they touched too heavily on personal topics. She once told the BBC that she chose writing as a career because "I like to sit down and type."

She did reveal that she loved to move every few years and would thrill to the first night she spent in each of the 18 houses she purchased.

Rendell also was expansive on her politics. A major supporter of the Labor Party, she left no doubt about where she stood.

"I'm a very bad Christian, but I am a Christian," she said in 2002. "I think that all women, unless they are absolutely asleep, must be feminists up to a point. And socialist — well yes, of course."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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